Steve Swenson: What I’ve Learned

Age 63, early oxygenless ascents of Everest and K2, dozens of expeditions worldwide, Piolet D’Or winner, retired engineer, author.

By Alison Osius | December 20th, 2017

Photo: Jim Lowther.

This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 247 (January 2018).

My early trip to Everest, in ’94, was a miserable experience in some ways. It took me back to my Boy Scout days of learning to climb. We learned that probably the most important thing in the mountains is to take responsibility for yourself and help other people when they’re in trouble. On Everest there were people leaving people behind who needed help. Or people whose summit ambitions were their life dream, and they had to put those away to rescue somebody who wasn’t taking responsibility: wasn’t prepared and went anyway.

After that, I didn’t go back to any 8,000-meter peaks.


You have to be able to play the long game. I went to Pakistan four times without a summit.

In 1986 I applied for a permit for Gasherbrum IV, but dropped out to go to K2. George Lowe and Alex Lowe were going, and I was kinda star-struck. Also, after trips [to GIV] in ’80 and ’83 I didn’t think I was getting it right. I was organizing the team, and both times there were issues, big attrition rates.

Actually in ’86 I think I did have it figured out, because the [GIV] team that Greg Child and I had put together were great, and they did the route.

On K2 I got maybe 300 or 400 meters from the top with Alex in bad snow conditions late in the day.


But K2 in 1990 was our big success [with Greg Mortimer, Greg Child and Phil Ershler]. We probably never would have climbed it then if I hadn’t been there in ’86.


My fourth attempt on Gasherbrum IV was my last. It’s good to know when to move on. Even though it might always be a disappointment, that’s just life, and it’s healthier to give yourself a break. There are lots of things to do.


From the Mazeno Ridge on Nanga Parbat in 2004, with Doug Chabot, there are several lessons. We did the long ridge [four peaks prior to the main summit], and I was sick, coughing. It was time to come down.

We left all our stuff, including the rope, and were descending when we got to this big rock section that narrows into a ridge. Steve House had told us he remembered fixed ropes … There was no rope. We would have to go all the way back up and never make it—or try to downclimb and maybe fall to our deaths.

I’ve learned that when you make a mistake it’s usually not the first mistake that kills you. It’s rushing into something else trying to recover from the first one. I said there’s gotta be something else. So we sat there for three hours. I finally remembered that 100 feet up the slope I saw this little piece of rope sticking out, like three feet sticking out of the ice. We went back up and chopped for three hours and salvaged about 75 feet of rope, which literally saved us.

Don’t leave your rope behind. And don’t listen to someone else’s advice. That’s not Steve’s fault. We were the ones who decided.


On one expedition I could see right out of the Jeep that it wasn’t going to work. One of the big lessons was it’s just all part of the journey. You go with it. It’s probably not going to work out this time, but let’s just see what happens and how far we get, it might just set us up like on K2, and after that I was just trying to behave myself.


I’ve learned that on a big trip you go with equal partners, which means everyone has an equal opportunity and responsibility for decision- making. It’s important to be aware on a big climb when anyone, including me, is too intimidated or exhausted to collaborate and contribute equally. If I sense that this is happening, we all go down.


From writing Karakoram: Climbing Through the Kashmir Conflict, I learned to develop more of my right- brain skills. By nature I’m more systematic and organized, and those skills come in handy as

a climber and an engineer. To write an interesting book, I knew I’d have to dig deep and work on being more creative and intuitive. That process was powerful. I wish I had done something like this long ago.


Also read Life and Death in the Karakoram: Climbing Latok I and Ogre II

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